This story is a product of the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk, an editorially independent reporting network based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in partnership with Report For America and funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Wisconsin Watch is a member of the network. Sign up for our newsletter to get our news straight to your inbox.
Seth Petersen was at his grandmother’s funeral, and his phone wouldn’t stop ringing.
Three hours away in the village of Luck, Wisconsin, where he served as director of public works, there was an emergency. Petersen was getting calls repeatedly, asking for his expertise.
Petersen and two other employees were responsible for drinking water, wastewater, street maintenance, park and cemetery maintenance and picking up stray dogs, he said. The job never stopped.
“Seth, what the (expletive) are you doing?” his brother-in-law said to him as he came back to the family gathering from another call. “Why are you living like this?”
Petersen left that job at the end of last year. Now, he helps train water operators in small communities for the Wisconsin Rural Water Association.
Luck is not an outlier. In small and rural communities across the U.S., water system operators are stretched thin, covering around-the-clock responsibilities to keep water running safely and reliably despite aging and underfunded infrastructure.
The consequences of a water system falling behind have received the national spotlight, infamously in Flint, Michigan, and most recently in Jackson, Mississippi, where majority-Black communities bore the brunt of mismanagement and aging infrastructure.
Thousands of under-resourced systems risk a similar fate, and small water systems — defined by the EPA as serving fewer than 10,000 people, and making up more than 90% of the nation’s community water systems — are in a particularly precarious position.
Their staffing is often sparse and underpaid. Infrastructure, in many places, is crumbling and underfunded, and though there is a fresh infusion of federal money on the table, it’s a challenge to access.
The American Rescue Plan Act, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and other programs represent a historic investment in the country’s water infrastructure, totaling billions of dollars.
But the total available funding, even after it’s all been doled out, still won’t be enough. One report from 2020 estimated that the U.S. would need to invest nearly $3.3 trillion in water and wastewater infrastructure projects between 2019 and 2039 to keep systems updated.
Many communities will also face increases in their water bills to keep up with infrastructure and staffing needs. Yet raising the price of water may prove unworkable in rural and historically-underinvested communities like Appalachia and the Mississippi Delta, some of the most impoverished in the country.
No one in the U.S. should have to worry about having safe drinking water, said Chris Groh, executive director of the Wisconsin Rural Water Association.
“But a town doesn’t take care of itself.”
Small community water systems falling behind
Over the last two decades, water systems in the ten states bordering the Mississippi River violated U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations for drinking water more than 438,000 times.
That figure includes thousands of instances of heightened levels of harmful chemicals in water each year. Nitrates, trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids, which have all been linked to various cancers and other health hazards, were top contaminants in the EPA’s violation data in 2022.
Nitrates are an indicator of agricultural runoff, common in rural areas. And trihalomethanes and haloacetic acids appear as byproducts of the water treatment process, when chlorine reacts with organic contents.
Addressing these issues can require expensive treatment technology. But in the last two decades, small and large utilities alike have reined in the number of violations.
However, an Ag and Water Desk analysis of EPA Safe Drinking Water Act violation data nationwide found small water systems have been slower to reduce their violations than larger systems. And these violations only represented those reported; there could be many more incidences of unreported issues.
In the ten states along the Mississippi River, both small and large water systems saw increases in violations newly reported during 2022. For small water systems, that increase was more significant.
That disparity is, at least in part, an indicator of the disadvantages facing small and rural water systems, according to Jennifer Sloan Ziegler, a Mississippi-based engineer serving as vice president of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Environmental and Water Resources Institute.
And recent injections of federal infrastructure funding won’t be enough, she said. They’re not sustained funding, she added, and “the sad thing about it is: It still doesn’t catch us up.”
‘I don’t have a day off’
The working conditions that drove Petersen to leave his position in Luck are a trend reflected in small communities across the country.
“I don’t have a day off,” said Nathan Taylor, lead operator of a small water plant in Wax, Kentucky. The days he’s not on-duty, his phone is constantly ringing as issues come up at the plant, he said.
Ziegler pointed out a water operator she knows nearby in the Mississippi Delta, whose responsibilities span four different water districts — “a huge, huge area,” she said.
Water system operators serve as a first line of defense for a community’s public health, and must have working knowledge of chemistry for licensing tests.
Yet operator pay in many small communities is about neck-and-neck with wages at the local McDonald’s. Other trades, like construction, often pay far more.
“You can go swing a hammer for 25 bucks an hour,” said Petersen, in Wisconsin, “...and you can ice fish all winter.”
A workforce survey last year in Kentucky found water utilities in the state pay as low as $10 per hour for an entry level position, with an average closer to $18. But 72% of managers reported losing staff to better pay in another job opportunity or other, often larger utilities.
The water workforce nationally is also aging overwhelmingly. Seventeen million workers are expected to leave the industry in the next decade, Ziegler said, and bringing young people into the profession has proven challenging.
“We’re losing people,” she said, and “we’re not getting them back.”
Federal money on the table, if you can get it
Widespread water workforce shortages make accessing infrastructure funding an even bigger task for small water systems’ overworked staff, despite desperate needs.
And the application process for federal funds often looks very similar in a village of 1,000 or a city of half a million, according to Ziegler.
“It is extremely extensive,” she said. “Not just the application, but the amount of background documentation that you have to provide them. It takes… I would say, months, to get it together.”
Smaller systems are at an inherent disadvantage. Larger utilities, with more ratepayers and bigger budgets, often have experts on staff to go after competitive funding pots.
“Their applications are shiny,” Petersen said. “And they’re written by someone with a Master’s degree.”
During his tenure as director of public works, Petersen worked through the application process to access federal infrastructure funding for Luck’s streets. Even with help from a consultant and phone calls with the state, he described it as overwhelming.
“You don’t even know where to begin,” he said. “Things are this far behind.”
Luck didn’t get that money. And in cash-strapped communities, paying large sums for the help of consultants in applying for funding that isn’t guaranteed is a big gamble.
“Let's just be honest. If they can't afford to upgrade and maintain and operate their systems with the money they have,” Ziegler said, “do you think they have money left over to hire somebody, to pay somebody to put together this application…? They don't.”
Poorer communities facing higher water bills
Without sustained infrastructure funding, communities in turn face a rising water rate. In many rural areas, it’s a bill they can’t afford.
In Martin County, Kentucky, where communities are built along snaking creeks and between the rolling mountains of Appalachia, residents still don’t trust the tap.
Decades of water district mismanagement, including chronic reports of discolored water and burdensome service shutoffs, eventually culminated in a state takeover. In 2020, authorities shifted control to Alliance Water Resources, a private firm, hoping to get the county’s water provisions on the right track.
At the peak of the crisis, the system’s aging water lines were leaking up to 90% of the water they were carrying, according to the estimates of Craig Miller, who now oversees the county’s water operations as division manager for the firm. For Martin County, that meant tens of millions of gallons of water going to waste every month.
In the years since the change in management, Martin County’s water system has made progress. In a recent stakeholder workgroup meeting, Miller reported improvements in water loss, as well as new hires and licensing for staff.
“There’s a good story here,” Miller said in the meeting. “But it is not over.”
Improvements came with a 24% rate increase, effective last year, piling onto already steep prices. More than a fifth of Martin County lives below the poverty line, according to recent census data.
“That's a huge burden on our poorest people,” said Nina McCoy, an advocate with Martin County Concerned Citizens, in the workgroup meeting. She pointed out that local water rates are far higher than in wealthier Louisville, where median income is 50% higher than that of Martin County.
The region’s mountainous terrain piles onto water infrastructure challenges, said Lindell Ormsbee, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Kentucky who’s paid close attention to the state’s water system struggles. And as in many rural areas, there are miles of water lines for relatively few homes, compared to cities like Louisville.
In Eastern Kentucky, many counties have historically relied on taxing the coal industry to fund water and other infrastructure needs. As the coal industry has declined, that funding has dried up, Ormsbee said, turning the burden over to ratepayers.
Even if systems are able to access one-time federal infrastructure funding, once it’s spent, they’ll return back to current levels of funding. In small communities, Ziegler said, that just won’t be enough.
“They're serving less affluent areas. They're serving older populations on fixed incomes,” Ziegler said, citing high rates of poverty in the rural and disadvantaged communities of her state of Mississippi. “Their customers cannot afford to pay more.”